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When It Comes To Air Pollution, Race and Income Matter

Environmental divide : In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment of the chemical ethylene oxide, marking it as a cancer-causing agent and dramatically lowering the acceptable threshold for healthy air. What happened after that, as explained by Sharon Lerner in The Intercept, illustrates the racialized nature of environmental regulation in the U.S. In affluent, mostly white Willowbrook, a suburb of Chicago, residents raised hell about emissions from a plant owned by Sterigenics, a company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment. Local, state and federal officials, including staff from EPA headquarters, attended a public meeting to address their concerns. The state just this month ordered the company to stop using ethylene oxide until it can prevent harmful emissions. In St. John the Baptist, a mostly African-American parish of Louisiana with a per capita income that is one quarter of Willowbrook’s, the cancer risk from ethylene oxide exposure was more severe. Residents there breathe in air polluted by dozens more industrial pollutants. But their concerns have been mostly ignored and dismissed, Lerner reports. A congressman sent a representative to one meeting hosted by Concerned Citizens of St. John. “He sat in the meeting, said nothing, and got up and left,” Robert Taylor, one of the group’s founders told Lerner. “We never heard from him again.”

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Sunscreen sense: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to make sunscreen safer, a move that some consumer advocates say is long overdue. The agency says that two of 16 active ingredients used in sunscreens are not considered safe and 12 more lack sufficient evidence showing that they are safe and effective. The agency has requested more information from manufacturers. The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, has maintained a database ranking sunscreen safety and noting, in particular, concerns about oxybenzone as a potential hormone disruptor. The group lauded the proposed rules, which also include new testing and labeling requirements. “If the FDA’s proposed changes are adopted, American consumers should be able to navigate the sunscreen aisle and choose better and more effective products for themselves and their families,” David Andrews, a senior scientist with the group said in a press release.

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Anti-overdose RX: At least seven states now require doctors to offer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone when prescribing opioids to patients considered at high risk for overdosing, including those who take a large dose or have a history of addiction. Some states require that the drugs be co-prescribed, and the FDA is considering recommending co-prescribing nationally, Barbara Feder Ostrov reports for CaliforniaHealthline. “You can take pain meds responsibly, and you can be at risk for an accidental overdose even when you’re doing everything right,” said Dr. Nathan Schlicher, an emergency medicine doctor in Washington state, where lawmakers recently mandated a naloxone prescription for high-risk patients.

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Shuttered mines, nonstop pollution: Every day, 50 million gallons of contaminated wastewater flow out of abandoned mines now under federal oversight. Much of it is captured and treated at cost to taxpayers. But about 20 million gallons loaded with toxic metals, including arsenic and lead, flow daily into nearby groundwater, rivers and streams, Matthew Brown of the Associated Press reports. The AP analyzed average flows from 43 mining sites, some of which contain dozens of individual mines, and documented a massive pollution problem receiving little government attention. Brown writes that the Trump administration is considering consolidating mine cleanups with another program and cutting the combined budget for 2019 by nearly two thirds, to $13 million.

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Seeking a ‘sanctuary’ from gun control: Commissioners in six rural counties of New Mexico have adopted resolutions creating “Second Amendment Sanctuary Counties,” the Associated Press reports. The resolutions state that local sheriffs won’t have to enforce gun control measures being considered by state lawmakers, including requirements for background checks and a measure that would allow courts to order people deemed a threat to themselves or others to temporarily surrender their weapons. Sheriffs and state leaders in Washington are in a similar standoff. Voters approved a ballot measure in November with a host of new gun controls. At least 13 county sheriffs have pledged not to enforce the new regulations, David Gutman of the The Seattle Times reports. That prompted the state attorney general to write an open letter saying sheriffs and police chiefs could be held liable if, for example, the failure to perform a required background check leads to the transfer of a gun used in a crime.

  • Also: The NRA magazine published a headline reading “Target Practice” next to an image of Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in 2011 during a constituent meeting, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It has not gone over well, though an NRA spokeswoman called the controversy “manufactured.” –– Sig Sauer CEO Ron Cohen faces possible jail time in Germany, where the company is accused of manufacturing 38,000 pistols before sending them to its New Hampshire headquarters, and then on to Colombia’s National Police, Todd Bookman of NHPR reports. German law prohibits companies from exporting firearms to countries in conflict.

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Legacy lost to PFAS: There has been a lot of reporting of late on the class of “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, used in a variety of consumer products and in firefighting foam that is blamed for contaminating groundwater around dozens of military bases in the U.S.. But this story by Amy Linn of Searchlight New Mexico may be the starkest I’ve read yet. She writes about a dairy farmer in Curry County, near Cannon Air Force Base, preparing to slaughter all 4,000 of his cows. The milk he produces–15,000 gallons a day–like the blood in his body, is contaminated with PFAS. And the toxic plume under his farm threatens one of the largest aquifers in the country, Linn writes. When the Air Force tested Art Schaap’s water in August, one well had a level of PFAS contamination 171 times higher than what the EPA considers safe.

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Federal investigators focus on J&J: Johnson & Johnson faces some 13,0000 lawsuits claiming that its signature baby powder was laced with asbestos and caused ovarian cancers or mesothelioma, assertions the company staunchly denies. Now, J&J has disclosed that it also is under investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, The New York Times reports. The agencies have issued subpoenas seeking information about product safety. Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington, also has requested information about what the company knew about possible asbestos contamination, the company said in its latest regulatory filing, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal. FairWarning reported early last year that J&J executives deliberated with the FDA over the health implications of trace amounts of asbestos in its powder as far back as the early 1970s.

Chelsea Conaboy is a FairWarning contributor and freelance writer and editor specializing in health care. Find more of her work at chelseaconaboy.com.